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Memoir Monday: Seven Tips for Writing a Great Memoir

It’s going to be Tuesday by the time I get this post out, but it must be Monday somewhere in the world? In Hawaii maybe? Alaska? Today, since it’s past my bedtime, here are seven tips for writing a great memoir. I’ll go into them more in depth in the coming weeks.

1. Don’t worry about your audience. Until you’ve completed your manuscript, don’t worry about what Uncle Joe will think when he reads that you saw his penis sticking out of his shorts one summer afternoon in 1965. Don’t worry about whether your best friend will hate you or whether the police can still arrest you for stealing that banana from the supermarket when you were six. Just get it all down. Who knows how your book will change between now and the final draft. You can always cut those parts out later.

2. Make sure your protagonist (you) is a strong, likable character who takes action throughout the book. It’s difficult to think of yourself as a character (in addition to a narrator), but you are. And you, as a character (It’s good to think of yourself in the third person when discussing your character) need to have a personality that is compelling enough to keep your readers engaged for 250-300 pages. You can have flaws, but not so many that the reader doesn’t like you or they’ll stop caring about your fate. You need to have a goal that you are actively pursuing. If you are just sitting around while life happens to you, your readers will wonder why they’re reading your book.

3. You need a story arc. Again, it’s difficult to think of memoir in terms of character development and story arc, terms we usually associate with fiction, but you need them in today’s modern memoir world, where stories are written in scene with dialogue just like novels.

4. Just start writing. Don’t know where to begin? Begin with the most vivid scene you remember. Write that scene. Then write another. And another. And another. Don’t worry about how they’ll fit together. Don’t worry about an outline. Just start writing. Wait. Didn’t I say you needed a story arc? Yes, but later. First just start writing.

5. You need reflection. A memoir can’t just be a series of events. It needs reflection, and there are many ways to do that, which I’ll discuss in a subsequent post.

6. Balance scene and summary. Memoirs have been written all in summary. Lynn Barber’s An Education is an example. But today’s modern memoirs tend to be a balance of scene and summary, and we’ll look at both of those more later.

7. Be honest. Transparency is one of the hallmarks of a good memoir, but that doesn’t mean that you have to confess your every sin. Find a balance between protecting information you don’t want to be made public and divulging to engage the reader. Remember, it’s not so much what happened as how you felt and thought about what happened that readers care about. Memoir is about your memories of the events, not the events themselves.

12 comments to Memoir Monday: Seven Tips for Writing a Great Memoir

  • Funny, seems like everyone is talking about "honest" writing today. Even the fiction writers! Not that that's a bad thing. Just a curious coincidence in terms of timing.

    I think these are great tips for writers across the board!

    • Hi, Joanna,as t writing goals, I think finding a passion about what to write is the most important one. Then comes producing contents on a blog, and I am very near to publishing two blogposts a week. Keeping this up with all the rest of work to do and getting people interested n what I write about is my goal for 2010. Seems not much, but is a lot toachieve..-= Ralph´s last blog .. =-.

  • Great points Meghan (loved the example anecdotes for #1); you've clearly learned a lot through this process, and come a long way since we read that early draft a while back. I'm looking forward to seeing how it turns out!

  • And THIS is why I write fiction and not memoir! It's hard enough writing a personal column in a newspaper without people getting all up in arms! Hats off to memoir writers everywhere — your job is a tough one.

  • Kristan – I am so behind on blog reading. I want to hear what other people have to say about being honest. And your book is coming soon!

    Nate – I have learned a lot, but that doesn't mean I've applied it to my book – yet! 🙂

    Cynthia – thanks for appreciating memoir writers! I do think it's harder than many people think. But, of course, fiction is no easy task either!

  • When you're writing about real people and real events, it's hard sometimes not to equate being honest with being mean. It really can put a damper on your storytelling. But you're right, you gotta just put it all down first and leave the editing for later.

    And in answer to your question over at my blog: a handful of agents have my ms (YA Sci-fi) right now. I've been in waiting mode for about a month. Not that I'm thinking about it at all. Oh. No. Hardly ever. In the mean time, I am working on a new book. Also YA.

  • KLM – That's great that you are working on a new book. I feel like I can't start another until I get this first one published. Maybe not the best idea.

  • yes the last point about honesty is very pertinent. The reader can tell straight away

  • Hello Meghan, Nice one, the 7 biggies I have been trying to get my head (and laptop) around for years now! I have been working on my memoirs and am blogging excerpts on the web. I know I will probably get run out of town for my confessions, but then again, at 54…well….I waited long enough! I write, I cringe, I think, I say, "what the f***", then I rethink, and well…4 years later I am still writing it. Got to be a reason I can't quite finish the thing, who looks more like an albatross around my Gulf Oil Spill…(bad one, I know.) But, and here is the rub…it is a wonderous, out of this world story about my life as a psychic, which happened with the death of my first boyfriend, after I had finished with my 2nd boyfriend who was an ex Heavyweight boxer, (he was 28 years older then me and funny, great, handsome, my Boss at a Jazz nightclub in Pittsburgh, and finally, my secret affair.) He died in 2004, I didn't know, hadn't seen him in 10 years. He showed up in a dream I had first. Then I realized what he was trying to tell me. I was in London, for many years, living and working here, he still in Pittsburgh, where I had left him long before. His messages and love to me from the afterlife opened me up to being a Medium…his afterlife messages to me were so beautiful…in the end, I had to write the book, the story, for him, for me, for all those who have loved and lost and never got the business between them resolved…for Soul Mates and Seekers. But who and what gets told is always the hard part…so thanks for this…it helps. All the best to you, Miss Shawn Cohen my blog is: http://pittsburghphantomandme.blogspot I am hoping to finish it by the end of 2010…and then submit the book for publishing. Wish me luck!

  • Olivia

    A memoir can’t just be a series of events. It needs reflection, and there are many ways to do that, which I’ll discuss in a subsequent post. improve handwriting practice

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